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Finding Freedom in Failure

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Finding Freedom in Failure

In Ancient Greek there are two words for ‘time’: Chronos and Kairos. Chronos is the meaning of the word ‘time’ that we associate with hours, minutes, and seconds, ‘what’s the time Mr Wolf’ time. Kairos is a moment in time, more specifically the right, critical, or opportune moment in time. We will all hit Kairos moments in our lives, moments when something is about to change. Perhaps that moment when the scales fall from our eyes, and we start seeing things afresh, perhaps as they always were. These moments become real turning points in our lives, paradigm shifts.

If Covid-19 hasn’t pitched up one or many Kairos moments for you, then something has perhaps gone amiss in the last 2 years.

With over a decade of austerity measures, cuts to public spending and additional external pressures on our communities, the pandemic has acutely revealed the level of risk that vulnerable people are exposed to. The elderly in care homes, those shielding with medical conditions, the homeless, families using food banks, hungry children on free school meals…the list sadly goes on. Structural racism means nearly half of black families live in poverty, and people of colour in the UK have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and the economic fallout.

Do we feel that foreboding sense of failure, or burden to answer the question “what has gone wrong, for our sector to have let inequality and people’s vulnerability get worse?”

I wonder if any of you have had another Kairos moment and considered that perhaps the government doesn’t care about the VCFSE, or much of the work done through the sector? After all, at the beginning of the pandemic they seemed to swat the sector away with a measly £750m emergency support. By letting government off the hook, ‘filling in the gaps’, has the VCFSE sector failed? And is that why so many organisations are now left begging for their survival. 

To add salt to the wounds, The Charity Commission recently reported that while public trust is recovering after recent years, the percentage of people believing charities are important in society has plummeted 20 points in five years, from 75 per cent to 55 per cent.  

Time and again, the VCFSE sector has been challenged to raise its game, to redefine itself in the face of shifting sands with government, a growing, purpose-driven private sector, and wavering public trust. It has had ample kicks in the teeth, from the “stick to the knitting” lobbying bill, to fundraising and safeguarding scandals, and as a result of high-profile governance failings. How did we get here?

There have been times (but, tellingly, not for a while), when British civil society has swelled in response to big ideas. Perhaps that was what those attempting to rethink Civil Society back in 2010 were trying to achieve. Much was admirable about the Big Society rhetoric, but too much had the opposite to the desired effect.

The charity sector grew out of parallel Victorian traditions (though both paternalistic if I’m honest) of campaigning for change to address social ills, and secondly, delivering charity to those in need. The 40s and 50s saw another burst, reflecting the new sentiment around the welfare state, responding to pressing post-war issues, and Britain’s colonial legacy. In the 60s, 70s and early 80s, baby boomers came of age with optimism and idealism, this era spawned campaigning voices for the environment, human rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights (does something ring familiar here?). Since then, the boomers have grown up and become complacent. It seems white, middle-class managerial do-gooding has gone hell-for-leather down the sticking-plaster route of service delivery and given up on demanding change and justice.

Big ideas to solve world problems now come second to organisational growth and ambition. Big charity has corporatized, unrepresentative of those it serves. Institutional ego – that imperative to grow, to be the biggest – has led charities by the nose to embrace the contract culture, always in denial they were subcontractors, always pretending it was their own work being funded. Charities won’t blow the bank to put themselves out of business (that idealistic ambition), in case of a rainy day. And so it goes on.

The VCFSE sector has compromised itself, silent to protect delivering services, when it should have shouted for justice.  So, through complacency and compromise, the sector has ended up complicit in the state of things. Charities and other VCFSE groups, instead of using their power to change things, or sharing it, have hoarded it, protected it, and simply not done what they could have done.

What comes next? It can’t be more of the same. #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter suggest the big issues are, finally, inequality and injustice, together with climate change. People have had enough. People have gravitated towards movements and moments, from Occupy, to Extinction Rebellion, to the Schools Strike and Black Lives Matter.

Through the pandemic we saw more people informally organise (we call it Mutual Aid), raise money, and do things outside of the structure of charities, not even thinking to use those that exist, never mind set up new ones. Purpose is no longer just for charities, but good business.

I’m purposefully leaning on the hyper-critical side of the argument here to illustrate a point. Today we face a Kairos moment. An opportune moment to accept the challenge to do things differently. To embrace failure. To accept that through failing, we learn. And imagine the collective power we might have we had the courage to really do this together. To grasp this opportunity as not just one to make tweaks to our respective organisational machines, but to embark on the building of a community within the voluntary sector in Oldham that has the courage, the humility, and the willingness to be vulnerable and press on challenging the status quo.

Imagine a sector where imperfections are celebrated, and authenticity is encouraged.

A space in society where you’re freed from your fear of failure and inspired to try new things, creatively problem solve, and move forward with new ideas.

Imagine feeling confident in yourself and your abilities as a VCFSE leader because you know it’s ok to fail, learn and keep innovating to meet your goals. 

‘Failure’ is often regarded as the third rail of the charity sector – conventional wisdom is that ‘good’ results attract funds and build momentum, while the opposite risks losing funds, demotivating staff, and eroding public trust. But perhaps it’s time to step back and question what we mean by failure.

I’ve heard several iterations over the years – failure to achieve targets, demonstrate ‘value for money’ or grow and sustain projects beyond their first grant. However, in a sector that typically tackles complex social problems through innovation, is it fair to frame these as ‘failures’, or are they not just necessary steps on the road to innovation?

I think that part of the problem lies not with what we are achieving as a sector, but what funders – especially grant-making bodies and the public – expect to see as results. I’ve seen a lot of funders over the years approach charitable activities with a short-term and transactional mindset – “If I give you this amount of money, how many people can you support with it in the next year?” – at the expense of a longer-term, developmental mindset – “If I give you this amount of money, what can you learn through the people you support now and how can this be used to help others in years to come?”. It is the second notion that will drive this Learning Community.

Within this environment, no wonder so many in the VCFSE have come to measure success solely in terms of lives changed rather than lessons learned. And how dangerous for the future given that, to support a culture of innovation, VCFSE organisations need to be able to explore and share where they’ve failed so that others are not doomed to repeat their mistakes.

And that is the beauty of the direction we hope to head in as we build learning communities around the development of our respective solutions to societal issues here in Oldham. To foster this notion of ‘finding freedom in failure’ we will endeavour to:

  • Develop investment programmes that gives the sector the security to invest in robust, test and learn approaches, and removes the pressure to ‘over innovate’ to secure new grants
  • Prioritise and promote formative evaluation processes (“what’s working well and less well”) alongside summative evaluation (“what was the impact”), which support service user involvement and design, capture emerging lessons around delivery and help organisations to critically reflect on their progress
  • Gather organisations within learning community cohorts to give staff and volunteers the space to critically reflect on successes, challenges, and solutions with others
  • Foster a mindset that rewards lessons learned as much as it does immediate ‘successes’, both within investment programmes (for example, demonstrating lessons learned to access recurrent funding) or more widely

Some of these trends have already started to take root and several funders are leading the way, so where can charities look to for their own inspiration when it comes to proudly sharing lessons learned? Some of my favourites include: Street League’s impact dashboard that explores disengagement from programmes; and CLIC Sargent’s “Hands up, we’re not perfect” chapter in their annual report.

Failing doesn’t feel good

This is all well and good isn’t it. In theory, on paper, spoken out at a gathering of enthused individuals, like water off a ducks back we can accept the concept. But, as leaders, embracing failure and admitting to the shower of the proverbial screwups that we may have made along the journey in this sector, in front of anyone is not something we find easy. But, if we accept the idea that we can’t learn unless we try, then we must also accept that we are going to have to acknowledge when we’ve tried but failed. Otherwise, we become stagnant, or worse, fail to reflect and continue to make mistakes to the detriment of those we are seeking to serve.

Why embrace failure?

“Winners are not afraid of losing. But losers are. Failure is part of the process of success. People who avoid failure also avoid success.” – Robert T. Kiyosaki

Many of us are innately scared of failure and struggle to embrace it. It’s counterintuitive to us as we grow up celebrating success. Who wants to be a loser? We naturally want to feel good about ourselves and failing at something feels bad. But the fear of failure can be hugely limiting both personally and professionally. How do you know if you can win a new corporate partnership if you don’t get in front of prospects to pitch? You might be a superstar at pitching, but you won’t know if you’re too scared to try it out. 

Failure in the VCFSE Sector 

As a sector, we’re in a space where there’s a real need to innovate, particularly when it comes to parts of our organisational functions like income generation. The pandemic and lockdowns have meant that some areas of income generation such as community and events have been a huge challenge.  There’s a need to think of exciting, fun, and compelling ways to engage with audiences and combat creeping donor fatigue.

It’s probably worth admitting now that finding new ways to raise funds is going to involve a lot of failed attempts and if you’re going to succeed you may want to look at how you and your team approach failure.

Here are two examples of brave individuals in our sector who have been courageous enough to share their stories of failure: Richard Lee, Director of Fundraising at Crisis and Vanessa Longley, Director of Development at YoungMinds.

Richard Lee, Director of Fundraising at Crisis – Richard has been successfully leading fundraising teams for several years now and his current team will vouch for him as an excellent manager, and his income growth figures speak for themselves. But it’s not always been that way. Starting out in his management career with the Royal Mail, after just 6 months of training and still wet behind the ears, Richard launched himself wholeheartedly into his new role as a manager. During one of his first meetings with two of his team, and admittedly faced with difficult attitudes – line reports packing up at 4:57pm every day, no matter what, we all know that feeling – he felt himself getting increasingly frustrated. But Richard didn’t inhale, exhale, count to ten. No. He didn’t take a step back and reflect on what to do next. Instead, he let rip, full force and SHOUTED AT HIS TEAM. Proper frustrated, angry shouting. And he can still remember the looks on their faces, wide-eyed and shocked saying, ‘this man is completely insane’. And he still to this day feels sick, almost has an out of his body experience, when he thinks about it. Luckily for his more recent teams, he’s come leaps and bounds since that day and has learned to harness his emotions and bring out the best in his team through coaching and empowering, and creating a psychologically safe space for them to try, fail and learn, all sotto voce (softly softly). 

Vanessa Longley, Director of Development at YoungMinds – Vanessa Longley is known as a live wire in the fundraising innovation space. Fully committed to empowering her team and finding new ways to ensure YoungMinds has the funding needed to continue to grow their reach and help even more young people. But she’s not always found that work-life balance easy to hit.

 Vanessa viewed the prospect of pregnancy and motherhood, as so many new first-time mothers do, through rose-tinted glasses. She planned to learn another language during pregnancy, so she could bring up her child bi-lingual. She was also convinced that having a baby would help define her work/ life balance, imagining it would be easy to flit between being a successful fundraiser and superstar mother. Pregnancy hit her like a truck, and she was so badly affected by morning sickness that she struggled with the day to day let alone learning French. Fast forward a few years to part-time working/ part-time single-parenting, and a day in the park when her little girl grabbed her ringing phone and answered said, ‘hello this is mummy’s phone, she works at Mencap,’ and you guessed it, Vanessa had unwittingly turned her 4-year-old daughter into a PA. 

 Vanessa admits that at that stage she realised she was failing at the work-life balance and has learned that it’s less of a balance and perhaps more of a flow (I know some of us could think of other words to describe it right now). She points out that she finds it almost impossible to create artificial division between our work and home lives, particularly if you’re bringing 100% to both. Rather than separating being a mum and Fundraising Director, she brings what she’s learned as a mum to work: multi-tasking, using her playful side and learning.  She also brings things she’s learned from work to her home life.

Being brave enough to try

In my 15-year career in charity leadership, the most exciting, inspiring, and ‘successful’ people I’ve worked alongside in the sector are those brave enough to try new ideas and manage their fear of failure.  They believe that there are endless opportunities to try, fail, learn, and succeed.

We live in the ages of Mindfulness, where the practices of taking space to reflect are encouraged by a plethora of wellbeing gurus across our social media channels, on our tv screens, and from the our computer screens. This is all well and good when we have the time to practice reflection. But what if we don’t? What if we’re beyond capacity in the day-to-day reality of being the charity leader, chief fundraiser, admin assistant, cleaner, and youth worker all wrapped into one? How can we find the space to build the safety net needed if we are going to accept the challenge I outlined at the start, so that we can, together, challenge and then change the status quo?

That is our primary intention with the Development Learning Community. To provide you with the tools to increase your capacity, and your organisations capacity. To provide you with a community of peers who have your back. To provide you with a safe space to try out new ideas, to test, to be vulnerable and honest in your reflections. To build the courage to acknowledge your Kairos moment and step on accepting that you WILL fail, but you WILL learn. And through your failures and subsequent lessons learnt, those that your purposed to support will find freedom.